ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - Tyree Rogers spent 12 years in prison for armed robbery and carjacking.
He ended up back in the Orange County Jail on violation of probation and drug charges when he started "hustling" again.
"And my fiancee came to visit me," Rogers said. "And she sat there and cried through the whole visitation. I had to do some soul-searching and said, 'Something has to give, has to change.'"
Change came when Rogers heard about the Orange County Jail's Inmate Construction Program.
Rogers had to apply because the program only accepts a little more than a dozen inmates every six weeks.
When Rogers applied, the program was so popular there was a wait list.
In 2018, he was carefully screened and accepted into the program.
"They said if we stuck with it that it would give us a chance, a shot at earning a livable wage and hopefully a career," Rogers said. "I was skeptical, but I really didn't have anything else to lose, I was homeless, living in my car for a year and a half."
What's different about this jailhouse rehabilitation program from others in surrounding counties is the intensity, the certifications it offers, and the connections to jobs immediately after graduation.
"They told us whenever we got out it wouldn't be easy, but if we stuck with it, we could make it," Rogers said.
The construction program is like a strict college course crammed into a month and a half. Inmates report to the classroom Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
In fact, completion of the program, taught in conjunction with Valencia College, provides a Valencia College student ID that grants graduates free Lynx transportation for one year, a certificate of completion, three (3) college credits toward an associate of science degree in Building Construction Technology, and several other valuable construction industry-required certifications that otherwise would take hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours to obtain, including:
- National Center for Construction Education and Research
- Maintenance of traffic
- First aid/CPR
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration 10
Before he was arrested, inmate Herman McClenton used to make cabinets but never had any of those certifications.
"They're very valuable," McClenton said. "If you don't have those qualifications they're not going to pay you what you think you're worth."
Robert Barnett was tasked with starting the construction program at the Orange County Jail in 2016.
He said county staff told him he was crazy when he asked for electric saws, drills, nail guns, and several other power tools.
Eventually, Barnett convinced the county to trust him.
"And three and a half years later, 242 graduates later and 165 jobs later, it's working, and nobody has been hurt," Barnett said. "
Barnett and the inmates work in a large, fenced-in room inside the jail, learning how to use the tools. The inmates live together, study together and motivate each other.
"We often tell them we're selling dreams because it is 200 hours of me telling you to change your life and here's why," Barnett said. "That's why it's so important for the employment process on the outside to work."
Barnett said the job connection component is key.
The day after an inmate is released, Barnett meets with the inmate to make sure he or she has an updated resume and to line up a job interview.
"We have contracts with foremen, superintendents, and we'll help you all the way up to the interview," Barnett said. "So the guys know we're going to get them a job basically. We say all of the certifications mean nothing if you don't have a job to back it up."
Jail Chief Luis Quinones said the construction program is the best thing he's been part of in his 32-year career.
"This is hardcore," Quinones said. "But it's producing positive results because they're out there and getting employed. You gotta give to get back, and it's happening. Many of these individuals have never completed anything in their life, and for the very first time they're graduating, they've completed their course."
Graduates of the program are invited to a graduation ceremony inside the jail where they wear a cap and gown. Their families are also invited.
Then, as soon as they're released from jail, they go directly to work.
Barnett connected Rogers with a job at Lane Construction, a road and bridge-building company.
Rogers has been out of the Orange County Jail for a year and has already helped build four bridges in Central Florida.
He's also built a stable life and a family.
Rogers is proud to say he has a great job that is turning into a career.
"I'm happy to say I have a home, a new baby girl, hopefully me and my fiancee getting married soon, I have plans, I have plans for life," Rogers said. "For the first time ever."
Rogers' position at Lane comes with excellent health and retirement benefits.
He expects to make $18 per hour with his next promotion.
"I have health benefits, long-term short-term disability, I have a 401K and I have five days paid vacation each year," Rogers said. "I have to look in the mirror because I can't believe it, especially when I look at my little daughter."
Barnett said the program connects inmates with careers that provide a livable wage.
"We tell the guys in the jail, we're very honest with them, anyone can have a record and get a job in construction," Barnett said. "But the point is you'll make $9 an hour, and that's not enough money to survive. So now going back to doing what you used to do."
Barnett said since March 7, 2016, 242 inmates have graduated from the construction program. Twenty graduates are women and 222 are men.
Of the 242 graduates, 165 have secured full-time employment (13 women, 152 men), with 141 being employed in the field of construction.
Barnett said some inmates who learn they'll be released before they graduate from the construction program beg him to stay in jail until they graduate.
Barnett said he always works with judges to allow inmates to finish the program and graduate if they desire.
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